Sunday, August 28, 2011

Olivier Megaton: The Action Film Feminized Once Again (Colombiana)

Zoe Saldana, Colombiana, Tri Star Pictures, 2011.

The American action film , like all Hollywood funded genres, has become so routinized in its particulars as to elicit a last gasp for the discerning buffs who crave brains with their brawn. The Shaw Brothers films of the 1970s and Studio actioners of the 80s-90s the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis all had a specific cultural context with which to enjoy their over the top ramifications. In the present polemic, the action film is a mish-mash of the cliche and the caustic which is hard to digest given the lack of creativity put into it.

French action auteur Luc Besson has made a career of delineating the divine within the genre (Leon:The Proffessional, The Fifth Element, The Messenger:The Story of Joan of Arc). Most recently, aside from the odd little flick (Arthur and the Invisibles, Angel A), he has concentrated on cornering the market in fast and furious extractions of the genre. His Transporter films were slick and entertaining slights, and in between he's had mixed to merry results with everything from the giddy pleasures of Unleashed to the dour distractions of Taken. Whatever your opinion, there is no denying that Besson is a maverick who spreads the B spirit, while maintaining a bizarre personal agenda for his own directorial efforts.

The new film Colombiana falls into the camp of the deliriously campy, guilty pleasure. As ADD as his enormously popular Transporter flicks, with the immensely likable Zoe Saldana and her strong, sexualized presence filling in for the rough hewn masculine rigor of Jason Statham, the picture has the washed out stylized look of a Tony Scott film and the unmistakeable flow of a Besson production.

Besson and his co-writer Robert Mark Kamen craft a ridiculously addicting tale of drug cartels and revenge, fueled by the spirited direction of Transporter 3 helmer Olivier Megaton, who just goes with it all. There's a certain undeniable affection one can form for a film which is what it is; a surreal slap in the face of plausibility, a caffeinated potboiler about to explode. We get swept up in the energy of the entire affair, and Besson and company deliver the goods. 

The cast is game, headed by the lithe Saldana, supported by genre stalwart Michael Vartan and the indispensable Cliff Curtis. Romain Lacourbas' fevered camera recalls the underrated Scott, while Nathaniel Mechaly's score is a persistent pastiche. All elements come together both hideously and cogently.

What Besson, Megaton and Kamen have pulled off here is a shallow but smooth feminization of the action genre. Besson is no stranger to the task, having done a much better job himself on his brilliant La Femme Nikita in the 1980s. Recently, Joe Wright's Hanna masterfully manipulated the genre. What Colombiana is good at is making us swallow crap that is still crap, but well done crap.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Troy Nixey: Half-Assed Horror (Don't Be Afraid of the Dark)

Bailee Madison, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,Film District, 2011.

There is a lot to be said for the Gothic haunted house film, it's roots in Victorian prose, Colonial folklore and Hollywood B-movies. Classic exponents of the sub-genre including Lewis Allen's The Uninvited (1944) and Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) were shrouded in shadowy terror, their atmospheres the dreaded element, their mystery the treasured key. Dan Curtis' Dark Shadows(1966-71) and Burnt Offerings(1976) were top notch additions to the creepy cinematic house, and most recently Jan De Bont made an honorable remake with The Haunting(1999) and modern master Alejandro Amenabar crafted the brilliant The Others(2001).

What makes Troy Nixey's directorial debut Don't Be Afraid of the Dark so shatteringly disappointing, then, is the wasted promise of what could have been. Another modern master, Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth) has brought to fruition a big budgeted remake of an obscure 70s American TV movie he loved as a child. del Toro's strengths as a director have always been his combination of otherworldly vigor with gut instinct and pathos. Even in his most colossal fare, the two Hellboy films and Blade 2, he displayed his knack for personal flair and emotional levity.

Adapting the teleplay with forgotten director Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer, The Legend of Billie Jean, batteries not included), del Toro starts off in that delicious vein. The script is a well-managed balance of his strengths with Robbins'. But then, at the halfway point, the entire affair succumbs to the weight of recent popular cinema. The devastation of preposterous plot device and ridiculous character motivation hangs the entire ludicrous affair out to dry.

Aside from the mostly horrible script, director Nixey shows a strength for style and bold visualization. The set design by Lucinda Thomson and Kerrie Brown is magnificent, enriched by Oliver Stapleton's creepily gorgeous cinematography. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders' music score is an eclectic homage to old school Hollywood and Bernard Hermann in particular. The cast is outstanding with what little they are given, especially magnetic child actress Bailee Madison.

In the end, it comes down to the fact that the haunted house picture demands a certain level of skill and intelligence which, sadly, this new film just can't muster. A few years back, del Toro produced an awesome haunted house movie, The Orphanage, directed by the gifted Juan Antonio Bayona. The confluence of style and substance exuded by that Spanish film was remarkable in many ways that the ultimately half-assed Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is definitely not.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Jesse Peretz: Idiocy in a Pseudo-Indie Key (Our Idiot Brother)

Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel, Our Idiot Brother, Weinstein Co., 2011.

The hoary cliches and crap fueled clinchers of Studio comedies are becoming indistinguishable from the pseudo-indie flicks which were once set apart. The Hangover and Crazy Stupid Love and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy may as well be the same picture; their forceful crassness and formless prostitution to the lowest common denominator make one want to book it for the exits in an uproarious upchuck.

That a simple and sweet natured film like Jesse Peretz's Our Idiot Brother falls into the mundane mechanisms of the current sleep wave is alarming. A family comedy with a sharp cast should either be more truthful, more hilarious or a combination of both. Paul Rudd's aw shucks charisma as the pure, sweet natured hippie bro of three obnoxiously self involved sisters is an antidote to the awfulness of a script co-written by the director's sister, drowned in a combo of sweet/sour and nauseating. The fact that Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks and Zooey Deschanel play the unbearable sisters is no consolation. Three excellent actresses in poisonously shrill characters make for an ugly mix. Shirley Knight, Steve Coogan, Rashida Jones, Katherine Hahn and Adam Scott are all stuck in thankless also ran parts.

Peretz's directorial debut was the masterful indie-film First Love, Last Rites (1998), which pulled us into a fevered spell of young love and obsession. His sophomore flick, The Chateau (2001) starred Rudd and Romany Malco, and was a slight if likable satire. After that, you can feel the director's talents as a dramatist and a mood maker urging toward Hawksian screwball and Capraesque humanism getting flushed by the regulations of modern moronic comedy, their stipulations on wretched conventions and flat characterization. The Ex (2006) and now Our Idiot Brother have so much promise, yet stranded in the studio sanctioned idiocy of audience expectations.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Craig Gillespie: Vacancy for Vapid Vampires (Fright Night)

Colin Farrell, Fright Night, Dreamworks Pictures, 2011.

Tom Holland's original Fright Night was inventive, fun and most importantly, scary. It was imbued with that special glow that 80s teen pictures give off, from Sixteen Candles to The Monster Squad to Heathers. Holland knew how to play on horror nostalgia and teenaged emotions in an intelligent meaningful way.

Unfortunately, Craig Gillespie's remake contains none of these simple charms. The basic rules of progressive horror narrative are ignored in similar snoozefest I Am Number Four writer Marti Noxon's plodding, derivative script, riddled with flat characters and ear sore dialogue. Despite an excellent cast, headed by the always likeable and reliable Anton Yelchin and boosted by a scene stealing, smoldering Colin Farrell as the vampire next door. Toni Collette, David Tennant, Imogen Poots and Christopher Mintz Plasse all fill out thankless roles thankfully.

Pro cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe lights the desert track homes of Vegas gorgeously, and composer Ramin Djawadi's score is brooding and well done. Yet the film that they inhabit is unworthy of their excellence.

Director Craig Gillespie is talented as he has proven in the past with his dark indie comedy Lars and the Real Girl. He displays some of that vision here, attempting to salvage the wreck of a screenplay, unsuccessfully. The transfer of Roddy McDowell's horror show host from the original to David Tennant's Criss Angel magician in the new film does not gel the same. It feels out of place and cringe worthy as the rest of it.

In one weekend, we have seen Marcus Nispel's very good remake of Conan the Barbarian and now a terrible remake of horror classic Fright Night. It goes to show the emptiness in the studios writing department which elicits unnecessary remakes of anything nostalgic they can think of. The strength of any remake is in the writer and director, as in any film. We can have True Grit or we can have Fright Night.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lone Scherfig: Reeling in the Years (One Day)

Jim Sturgess, Anne Hathaway, One Day, Focus Features, 2011.

Love and romance are dominant dynamics which propel and shape art into emotional undercurrents that sweep us up. As with any human drive, longing and desire can be manipulated into a false intermediary for profit motive. Art should move the spectator into admiring its construction and look at their own lives differently or become more aware of how they approach the world and in turn, art itself. Movies must make money first. If they can be honest or true while maintaining a shape or style, then they are dually triumphant.

Romance has denigrated into the sappy bottom line of dreary "chick" flicks. Movies like The Notebook, Failure to Launch, and Life As We Know It are so patently false and insulting in their representations of the real world that they become tiresome caricatures,  imitations of life in the reel world.

Lone Scherfig's new romantic drama, One Day, comes as a refreshing oasis in a desert of lifeless love duds. Based on a bestselling novel, the picture is nothing new, but so lovingly made, so close to the bone in its emotions and form, that it never feels also ran. Scherfig has proven herself a pro at human drama laced with perspective. Her pictures Italian for Beginners, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself and An Education were all brilliantly realized thematically, stylistically and empathetically. Her tragic Dane spirit has been touched by a dark glint of sarcasm which melds to make her a singular talent.

One Day is her second British set drama, after the brilliantly realized An Education. While that film felt more defined in its motivations as a period coming of age/loss of innocence fable, aided by Nick Hornby's graet script, this one is less forceful and specific in its intentions. Recalling Robert Mulligan's hard edged 70s weepie Same Time, Next Year, Scherfig and writer David Nicholls follow the convergent trajectories of two British schoolkids as they grow up, pursue careers, fall in and out of other relationships, endure the good and the bad times, all while pining for one another.

Scherfig keeps it all balanced, feeling organic while encased in the forces of melodrama. We believe in these characters, and though they may be star crossed, it all feels like a genuine imitation of life. Anne Hathaway and especially Jim Sturgess are in top form, their chemistry palpable. The supporting cast including Patricia Clarkson, Romola Garai and Jodie Whitakker is excellent. Benoit Delhomme's camera work is voluptuous in its earthen, passionate colors. Rachel Portman's music score is elegiac and lovable, ideally accentuating the unrequited desire contained within.

Although it may all not feel completely smooth, for what it is its damn well done. The films elliptical structure shows the anniversary of the day Emma and met over twenty odd years, making for a pleasantly distinctive outline. It all feels lived in yet deliberate, complex as both a minor work of cinematic art and a heartrending actualization of two pining lovers reeling in the years.

Marcus Nispel: Safeguarding Sword and Sorcery (Conan the Barbarian)

Jason Momoa, Conan the Barbarian, Lionsgate Films, 2011.

When Robert E. Howard birthed his pulp rag tales during the Depression, the world saw the dawning of an entirely new era of make believe. In the tradition of Doyle and Burroughs, yet liberating itself through grafted worlds of invention, the universe of Conan the Barbarian inducted the narrative genre of sword and sorcery into the game. Howard's courageous creation set the stones for Lewis, Tolkien and many others.

Likewise, in the realm of film, the high fantasy branched out from Fleming's The Wizard of Oz and Powell's The Thief of Baghdad and met somewhere between Zorro, Robin Hood and Spartacus. The Sixties saw the rise of the "spaghetti gladiators", sword and sandal pictures which oozed cheez from Biblical or historical roots. Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad the Sailor sealed the past and the mythic unknown through Ray Harryhausen's visionary creature effects. All the while, fanboys were reading Le Guin, Andersen and Brackett.

John Milius' Conan the Barbarian (1981) made a star of Schwarzenegger while materializing Howard's intangible world through the director's own stylistic and thematic fixations. The subsequent movies, Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Red Sonja (1985) carried the kitschy torch in transgressive fashion.

Marcus Nispel's new version of Conan is rip-roaring, blood spattered and fascinating. His frenzied pacing and neo-classical framing combine for a modern yet timeless retelling of Howard's muscular tales, steeped in Christian mysticism and fevered folklore. Jason Momoa, past star of Baywatch and Stargate:Atlantis, is no stranger to beefcake and sci-fi/fantasy schmaltz, and emerges triumphant as a B-movie star here, his bronzed bod and determined gaze sealing the identity of this new God-like incarnation. Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan and Ron Perlman all get to chew up scenery, fitting snugly into their Comic-Con genre friendly niches. Tyler Bates' colossal score fits the fire and ice of the film peerlessly.

Nispel began his career with a well done remake of horror masterpiece Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He then continued with the underrated sword and sorcery flick Pathfinder. Conan seems the logical culmination of a deliciously grimy inception as a horror/fantasy helmer. The robustly envisioned, hyper-violent otherworld he brings to life, the terse masculinity of Howard's prose is faithfully brought to cinematic life.

The pure drive-in splendor of yesterday's trash aligns smoothly here with the present trend of muscular CGI blockbuster, marking this re-make as one worthy of your time.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Robert Rodriguez: Time Waits For No One (Spy Kids: All the Time in the World)

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, Dimension Films, 2011.

Live action children's films have gone to the wayside as generic animation has taken over. Long gone are the days of Candleshoe or Watcher in the Woods. Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer just don't really cut it the same, what with their self-aware cuteness pop culture savvy.

Austin auteur Robert Rodriguez has been keeping the spirit of old-fashioned fun alive with his hectic but heartfelt kid flicks. A true visionary of the modern pulp B-movie, his tenacity at reckless action and horror wrapped in pathos and classic cinema style has resulted in some of the most refreshingly spirited American films of the past twenty years. The Mexico Trilogy ( El Mariachi, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico), From Dusk Til Dawn, The Faculty, Sin City, Planet Terror and Machete all subsumed the genius of Leone, Siegel, Jack Hill, Romero et al and transfigured his love for these boyhood cinematic idols into his own delirious niche as a genre master.

In between times, he has created colorful, imaginative children's films for his own kids, touched by the drive-in spirit of his darker fare. The original Spy Kids trilogy ingeniously re-envisioned James Bond as a trashy kid's flick. The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D and Shorts followed in the same vein. Smart-alecky family fare kissed by his flair for genre breathed new life into a sagging genre.

The original Spy Kids trilogy was joyously silly, filled to the brim with asides to Rodriguez's own boyhood fixations on action-thriller genre films in general and espionage pictures specifically. Families flocked at the chance to be intelligently entertained within the safe confines of genre within genre. The newest Spy Kids seems unnecessary, something no Rodriguez film has ever seemed to me before. With that said, he runs with it, following his own formula which has succeeded in the past. Eye-popping graphics, wacky sight gags and pratfalls and good writing cultivate a cute movie.

Jessica Alba, Jeremy Piven and Joel McHale all get to ham it up, the kids get their time to shine, and we even get to see original spy kids Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara all grown up. A robotic dog voiced by Ricky Gervais nearly steals the show. One of the weaknesses of Rodriguez's family films are the fact that they tend to look like Nickelodeon television shows compared to the complex visual textures of his "adult" works.Yet the cheapness adheres to the pre-adolescent ambience all around.

One of the strengths of Rodriguez's family films are their stimulating preoccupations with moral and physiological questions. However softly woven into his plots, they promise to tickle the thought-processes of parents and even children. Here the theme is time, its elusive nature and intangible essence. Age, family, and death are likewise touched upon.

The opening sequence of a full term Alba clad in black leather fighting bad guys is bizarre and wonderful, leading into the kooky temperament of surrealism which exudes from all of his kid's flicks. Though thin at times, All the Time in the World is far above the substandard of modern American family films. Through their minor executions, one of the most underrated and vital American filmmakers bares his fatherly warmth.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Evan Glodell: Hipsters from Hell (Bellflower)

Evan Glodell, Bellflower, Oscilloscope Pictures, 2011.

There are so many ways in which a directorial debut can go wrong, and actor-director-editor-writer Evan Glodell's soporific Bellflower contains about every one.

Bad screenplay. Inane dialogue. Atrocious acting. No sense of tone, pace or character development. Hip asides and unbearably self-conscious attitude. This DOA hipster "apocalyptic romance" has it all, or nothing at all, depending on how you look at it. You have to give Glodell props for having the know how to get something this terrible made and released.

The picture is so shapeless and boring, its mentions of Mad Max make you want to leave the theater and go home to pop in your dvd of George Miller's 70s classic. Yet the film does have one strength. The cinematography is shiveringly gorgeous, smeared saturated images blurring into one another. They go to prove one major fact: a film can be as beautiful as heaven, but without the substance of narrative, cinema it does not make.

Joe Cornish: Inner City Spillover (Attack the Block)

Attack the Block, Screen Gems, 2011.

The grittier tendencies of 1970s urban B-movies meets the sci-fi youth adventure blockbusters of the 1980s in the wonderful new film, Attack the Block. What director Joe Cornish takes from his pure love for John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and Walter Hill's The Warriors he blends with a nostalgia for Spielberg's E.T. and its ilk to craft a riveting, kinetic Summer action-adventure which transports us to an alternate Britain engulfed in the tonal pleasures of cinema yesteryear.

The images are drowned in caloric hues mindful of the waking nightmare, and the rhythm of night is hyper-alert and clipped to the ADD of the current generations, yet the themes and narrative are sheer nostalgic wonder. Cornish is a natural at this, and his loving touch is apparent in every frame. His pop-perfection is reminiscent of the similarly cinephilic Edgar Wright, only more far-reaching.

Street gangs, dope dealers, tenement dwellers and company clash in a frenzied firecracker night as bizarre aliens "attack the block". And though the premise is been there, done that, the execution is anything but. The dialogue crackles with intelligence, the framing glows with cinematic love and respect. The cast, led by the steely sensitivity of John Boyega and the glow and warmth of Jodie Whittaker, are simply splendid. The alien creatures are magnificently realized, their obscurity and serviceability a key factor in the streak of wonder indenting the entire enterprise.

Although the coalescence of the structure is not perfect, it nearly is for this type of Atlantic popcorn crowd pleaser. More than minting a bleeding blockbuster, Cornish has announced himself as a wunderkind who can find the heart and soul of cinematic passion beneath a genre much in need of love and care.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ruben Fleischer: Crime of a Comedy (30 Minutes or Less)

Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, 30 Minutes or Less, Columbia Pictures, 2011.

The scatological "bromance" has achieved such mystifying heft as a major Hollywood genre that it seems most have forgotten that the "buddy system" has been a feature of storytelling long before celluloid. The recent onslaught of homoerotic slapstick schtick ranges from DOA to stagnant to surprisingly good. Ruben Fleischer's newest entry into the Apatow arena is one of the more noteworthy.

30 Minutes or Less slants a disturbing true crime story into a rural satire on masculinity and crime, ruptured by the customary dick jokes and pratfalls. Fleischer has now proven he is a gifted director of genre mash-ups and dark comedies. His Zombieland was a well done horror spoof, and now he proves with his newest picture that he has a firm hand and uncompromising intelligence by transcending the cringe worthy cliches of the bromance. Michael Diliberti's screenplay sticks to the simplistics of character and exposition while digging in the well thought out one liners. This allows Fleischer to visually expand on his own inspirations, jibing the action-comedy buddy films of the Eighties.

The superb cast elevates the material as well. Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari play off one another expertly, expanding the horizons of their typical characters beyond studio comedy standard. Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Michael Pena and Fred Ward are all in top form as well.

Even though alot of this has been done before, Fleischer and co. do it with a grace and levity which feels refreshing. A mercifully brief running time, flashy visual style and the deeply calibrated turn of the excellent Eisenberg all combine for a caper film well worth the punishment.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tate Taylor: Helpless in the Heartland (The Help)

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, The Help, Dreamworks Pictures, 2011.

Kathryn Stockett's "sensational" best-selling novel has been transfused to the big screen with all the subtlety and intelligence of a hillbilly hammer blow to the head. The Civil Rights movement and the lives it affected is a monumental period in American history deserving of far more honor than this glossy tripe can muster.

A soapy Lifetime-lite "chick" lit flick, The Help has too many cringe-inducing moments that ring false than one can count. Director Tate Taylor dumps a twitching celluloid corpse into theatres, albeit one which drew forth polarizing emotions within me. I wanted to like the film, it's honorable intentions and the time period it depicts. And yet I found myself precariously balanced between astonishment and loathing at the condescending tones, history lite lessons and attempted alleviation of white guilt over America's bloody upbringing. To make matters worse, there is no style to speak of, just glossy flatness.

There is something bizarre about a film so mediocre and yet bristling with so many gifted actors doing their thing. I was definitely never bored. Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard are both excellent as opposing sides of the Southern-redhead fence, both breathe life into patently false characters. Seasoned pros Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen and Allison Janney are all superb in their own unique ways with the minor character parts they are designated. Jessica Chastain is effervescent and more believable than the two leads as an actual person.

The heart of this mostly heartless film is the mesmerizing turns of both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who ignite the fire and life into their manifestations of two opposing sides of the Southern-black mammy fence. They accord their characters a dignity and pathos otherwise absent from the entire affair. Thomas Newman's score is alternately jangly and melancholic, imbuing the sad affair with a spirit it does not deserve. In the end, these sublime actresses are helpless, stranded in a nauseatingly Hollywoodized heartland that never existed.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rupert Wyatt: Slow Evolution of the Popcorn Flick (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of The Apes, 20th Century Fox, 2011.

Pierre Boulle's fanciful futuristic novel became one of the biggest sci-fi franchises of the 60s and 70s, which was apt as it functioned as a razor sharp social commentary on evolution and civil rights, among other things. Tim Burton re-envisioned the first film in the series as a darkened blockbuster in his style, which worked in its own curious way. The new prequel, which sounds unnecessary, reveals itself to be more of the same said commentary, however disjointed in its totality.

Director Rupert Wyatt moves on from his overlooked prison thriller The Escapist and crafts a fluid piece of studio fare which avidly materializes the rich promise of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's multi-layered script. Scientific ethics, questions of evolution and a clash of species bristle within a fascinating plot line involving a scientist played by a reliably charismatic James Franco and a super smart chimp named Caesar (played brilliantly through visual wizardry by Andy Serkis). The emotion which seeps through the big budget is all the more remarkable for the morality it underscores, which is rare in usually tepid or braindead Summer fare. The first half of the film is unmissable though uneven.

The elasticity of Wyatt's images are wrapped in the saturation of Andrew Lesnie's gorgeous style, and buoyed by Patrick Doyle's pulsating score. Yet, despite the intelligence of the entire design and Serkis' magnetic turn as a chimp, the picture falls apart in its third act. In place of what should have been a rip roaring climax, we have a belabored, shrug inducing reliance on action cliches which don't feel right here, having come after the popcorn profundities which proceeded it.

Thankful as we must be for producers, writers and a director who refuse to insult our intelligence, the seeds have been planted to hope for better, that the evolution has only just begun.

Miranda July: Miracle at the End of the Day (The Future)

Miranda July, The Future, Roadside Attractions, 2011.

The chronology of the sun and the moon and their repercussions on human perception proffer a rich field to be mined by artists of the narrative form. Our waking days and dreams at night, our hopes and fears for what tomorrow holds are such delicately perplexing phantoms that they are difficult to convey with the feverish vision Miranda July displays in her beauty of a new film, The Future.

What in its simplest form sounds like a typically quirky indie dramedy, about a precious hipster couple and their tenuous hold on one another, becomes a profound and exacting meditation on what it means to be human. July, with her wet sapphire eyes and spritely spunk, recalls an empowered yet even more delicate Shelley Duvall at her Altman best. She has written, directed and acted in one of the most rigorously courageous and mysterious feats of pure cinema so far this year.

July and Hamish Linklater's Sophie and Jason are deadpan as they live their lives, working and collecting cool knick-knacks, not very certain of where it is they are heading. That feeling of fighting against malaise and middle-age, of dissatisfaction with the unachievement of your adolescent dreams, illuminates the structure and visual language of the picture enigmatically.

As the tale progresses, it slips more and more deliciously into dream and fantasy, hope and dream, often indistinguishable. The narrative device of a crippled cat voicing it's fears and desires to the audience while awaiting Sophie and Jason to adopt it from the shelter after it finishes healing, is thrillingly original. A crawling yellow t-shirt and the talking moon actualize the secret wishes of two scared people who only want to love and be loved.

With her masterful sophomore feature, performance artist July has surpassed the brilliant promise of her debut film Me and You and Everyone We Know, one of the greatest American films of the last decade. The structural daring and clarity of heart she so faultlessly displays makes us truly believe in the tangibility of miracles, waiting for us after the scrapes of reality, at the end of the day.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Lee Tamahori: Evil and the Other Half (The Devil's Double)

Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, The Devil's Double, Lionsgate Films, 2011.

Duality in all of its intrinsic manifestations is an especially crucial preoccupation of the cinematic art form, as it represents the complexities of man and his world. From the mirror images of Griffith and Lang to the polarization of gender in Minnelli to Aldrich's feminine doppelgangers, the double standards of the reflection offer artists the chance to visualize the two sided nature of man.

Lee Tamahori's career itself can be seen through this conception. His more personal dramas, the piercing  debut Once Were Warriors and the masterful, underrated Noir Mulholland Falls counterbalance the terse action of The Edge, Die Another Day, XXX: State of the Union and Next, all expert in their designation of genre and story craft. His strength as a craftsman is cradled by his vision as an artist.

All of this sound and fury prepared him for his newest film, the fascinating but uneven The Devil's Double. This pulpy, over the top pseudo-biopic about Saddam Hussein's psychotic son Uday and his sadistic relationship with his subdued body double, slaps us in the face with its flashy images and buoyantly perverse tale of fascistic power and (homo)erotic passion. De Palma's classic Scarface seems to be the driving influence behind Tamahori's trashy take on the rise and fall of the Iraqi nation and its war with America, the clashing of these split cultures.

As we are regaled with horrifying images, Tamahori's motives become clouded. The razor sharp script can be too black and white at times, before the third act completely collapses. And yet, the biggest delight here, and reason for the film even being of import, is Dominic Cooper's ballsy, ferocious performance as Uday and Latif. It is nothing short of miraculous, declaring the handsome young actor as one of our contemporary greats. His articulation and delineation of these two mirror men as seperate human beings is what great acting is all about, not show offy, but forcefully subtle and possessive. Ludivine Sagnier matches him with a breathtaking spin as Sarrab, the victimized/empowered woman torn between them.

Although Tamahori ultimately comes up short, his film is irrevocably combustive in its cinematic intentions and the successes it does accomplish. The culpability of man in the question of the existence of evil and all of his uncharted facets are called out by the director in a soapy, scummy cluster that's impossible to look away from.

John Michael McDonagh: Fire on the Irish Plain (The Guard)

Don Cheadle, Brendan Gleeson, The Guard, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.

Brendan Gleeson has trumped his co-stars again and again in countless pictures over the years. In everything from Braveheart to Gangs of New York and 28 Days Later, he has sharpened his tools as both a heavy with heart and a character actor of unconventional grace. Master John Boorman gave him the chance to shine in a rare lead in the excellent political biopic The General in 1998. With a swift, economical debut, John Michael McDonagh has provided Gleeson a meaty part in which he can stretch out and air his distinct talents.

The Guard is a fairly conventional policier satire cum cop buddy picture, with the action transplanted to a coastal Irish burg. Gleeson accentuates his gruff Irish masculinity with a sporadic glimpse of heart and soul. His shifty cop, derisively referred to as "the guard" by the film's baddies, is an entertainingly written if routine character in a fairly routine movie. What raises it up are the two leads and their catch-fire chemistry, and the thorny dialogue by McDonagh.

Don Cheadle plays straight man to Gleeson's lovable scenery chewing, and what comes forth are the obvious yet guffaw-inducing culture clashes between old world and new world, Irish and American, Anglo-Saxon and African-American. The social commentary emblazons the plot mechanisms with a light gale wind which propels along the bland visuals. Mark Strong adds a notch to his dastardly villain belt.

What we come away with are McDonagh's talent as a writer, his promise as a director, distinctly through his transplanting of the (spaghetti) western to the plains of Ireland. Most especially, we leave with the appreciation that a gifted character actor has been afforded the opportunity to flex his leading man muscles.

Monday, August 8, 2011

David Robert Mitchell: Folklore of a Teenage Night (The Myth of the American Sleepover)

The Myth of the American Sleepover, Sundance Selects, 2011.

Suburban middle-America, streets paved with no end, teenagers running through the night without the faintest idea of what ills their parents and older siblings. Streetlights illuminating the fresh night air of youth. Director David Robert Mitchell delivers the most thrillingly authoritative American film debut of the year with The Myth of the American Sleepover, an affectionate ode to all-American adolescence. His approach is firm and heavily stylized, his green cast blossoms under his gaze, and the results are provocative.

The American teenager film can be traced all the way back to Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road (1933) on through the angst of Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the nostalgia of Lucas' American Graffiti (1973) and the countless 80s teen-sex trifles. It is an important genre because it reminds us of who we are and how we felt at a given point in our lives, as well as evoking a specific time and place. Most recently, Richard Linklater crafted his masterpiece Dazed and Confused (1993) to which Mitchell's film pays respectful homage, and we were enlightened by Larry Clark's Kids (1995) and Bully (2001), Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World (2001), Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen (2003) and Jacob Aaron Estes' Mean Creek (2003). These picture's cut to the angst and exhilaration of actually being a teenager.

With Sleepover, Mitchell, an experienced film editor, not only flexes his muscles as a superlative technician, but displays his prowess as a stylist, locating the emotion in the visual order of his group portrait. The acting and dialogue are all flat and toneless, recalling the precision of Bresson minus the heaven. Through his manipulation of performance, Mitchell creates a pacing and pallor entirely his own. Through shapelessness he forms a shape. His feat is sublime.

The folklore of a teenage night is touched upon with a graceful force which marks Mitchell's as one of the most important independent films of the year. Following a dozen kids through their foibles and fears and desires in a Michigan suburb which could be now but feels and looks like the fuzzy past, the director salutes an American master, Richard Linklater, and the one night structure of his greatest achievement. This could be their last night on Earth, as far as these kids are concerned. Mitchell gives it that levity and shows he has the guts and vision to warrant our watching as a brilliant young director.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Concepts of Time (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Strand Releasing, 2010.

Death in all of its shrouded mysteries, is explored with a raging heart in master director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film, the unshakable Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Part family drama, part enigmatic journey and all encompassing work of art, Uncle Boonmee pushes the boundaries of the cinematic form while questioning the very fabric of our lives and perceptions.

We are presented with Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), an elderly man slowly dying from kidney disease. He lives wrapped in his memories on a jungle plantation, readying to pass into the next world. All that is keeping him here are his club footed sister-in-law (Jenjira Pongpas) and his lovestruck nephew (Sakda Kaewbuadee) who lovingly care for him and languorously luxuriate in the jungle days and nights of his final days. The phantoms of his past materialize in the sweeping green darkness of the jungle foliage, lit hauntingly by cinematographers Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Sayombhu Mukdeepron, who have mastered the Apichatpong trademark of the enchanted jungle, manifesting the emotions of humans lost within it.

The appearance of the ghost of Boonmee's wife, the monkey-beast form of his long-lost son and a talking catfish all encloak the film in a magical surrealism as envisioned in our director's trademark style, which is to intertwine form and content until they are one, almost becoming inner-realities in and of themselves. Uncle Boonmee feels propulsive and progressive for Apichatpong, while staying true to who he is as an artist.

Apichatpong is one of those directors whose signature is so distinctive that you can tell by one frame whose film you are watching, like Allen or Malick. His shots of traveling roads, densely gorgeous and textured jungle vistas, characters laying around, long still shots which begin and end long before and after other filmmakers would have cut, and sudden changes in perspective are all present as in his earlier films. His themes of longing, human connection, animalism, family, memory, stasis, perceptions of outsiders, perceptions of reality, dreams and most importantly, time, are explored in depth here, perhaps even more so than in his past films.

Uncle Boonmee pulls its willing audience into a spell of pure cinema which binds us with Apichatpong's hypnotizing power as a visual storyteller. His images, their juxtaposition with sound, and the impact of his questioning of time are deeply stimulating and provocative. Time as in real time, the time of our lives, time to relax, the times we had, a time like no other. And especially time as a cinematic concept. What is time? Who are we and where are we? The physiological underpinnings of his visual force are striking and unmistakable as those of a master filmmaker. 

Was any of this real? Is what we see Boonmee's hallucinations from his pain medication? Was it all a dream? The power of Apichatpong and the very essence of cinema itself is to make us dream awake and realize the  preciousness of our time and our lives.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Azazel Jacobs: True School (Terri)

Bridger Zadina, Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Terri, ATO Pictures, 2011.

The scarcity of motion pictures accurately portraying the inner life of the American teenager belies the gross manipulation of youth culture into a disturbingly skewed teen market. The fact that it takes an 'adult' film to find the pulse and break away from the fluff and circumstance speaks to the crass materialism and farcical plasticity of the mainstream motion picture and television industry. A pseudo 'mumblecore' indie filmmaker picks up where Larry Clark, Gus Van Sant, Michael Cuesta and Catherine Hardwicke have triumphed and excelled in years past; channeling the confusion and pain of growing up, as well as the ecstasy.

Azazel Jacobs' third feature seals his reputation as one of the most thrillingly alive and crucial young talents in American cinema. After his fascinating films The Good Time Kid and Momma's Man, Terri crystallizes his vision of the outsider as creator of his own world, amid the vagaries of everyday life and the harsh cynicism of others. His camera functions as his rough hewn eyes, gazing onto encapsulated corners of America.

Terri ( an astounding performance by newcomer Jacob Wysocki) is an obese teenager staggering through a muted home life and cruel peer relationships at his high school in a hauntingly rendered anytown suburb. The wonder of Terri is that Jacobs does not judge or slant the view, other than slathering the images in his lovingly 70s fueled light. Terri keeps his head up, remains unperturbed and level throughout. The relationships he forms or continues, with his unbalanced but loving uncle James (Creed Bratton), the fatherly, awkward assistant principal (John C. Reilly) who was a misfit once himself, and the two idiosyncratic outcasts ( Bridger Zadina and Olivia Crocicchia), shape the beating heart which unifies the lived in images.

The third act breaks away from the subdued scenes which preceded it, taking flight on wings of honesty which culminate in a transcendent conclusion. This sequence recalls Nicholas Ray in his Rebel Without a Cause, as well as Larry Clark in his masterpieces Kids and Bully. The three young actors locate the core of who their characters are and make us believe in them.  The truth of teenagers and high school which Jacobs makes us feel and understand demand the attention of those who crave films which are both aesthetically as well as intellectually relevant.

Mike Cahill: Inconsistent Planet (Another Earth)

Brit Marling, William Mapother, Another Earth, Fox Searchlight, 2011.

The wonders of the science-fiction genre are boundless in their capacity for the expression of the outer and inner worlds. In fiction, the printed word offers the imagination room to prowl and experiment. The cinema makes palpable the inconceivable before our very eyes, be the vehicle transcendent or pulpy.

With the honorable yet unsatisfying Another Earth, debut helmer Mike Cahill creates a dreamy world easy to get lost in. His gauzy images of a lonely New England town and the cold blue universe in the sky, are remarkable, as are the convincing orbits of his stars Brit Marling and William Mapother. Yet the aesthetic essence does not compensate for the incorrigible mismanagement of the story line, which feels like two films mashed into one, neither which are believable or tangible as relayed here.

What we are left with is a narcotized visual field promising the talent of those involved, yet lacking the heart and vision to completely entrench us.